Afghanistan is slipping away. Not slipping away like a thief in the night, but slipping out of our conscious grasp. Like Iraq, it's a venue of escape for Americans, a place from which to flee.
We see little spurts of stories that punctuate the foreign news beat -- the Koran burning by the U.S. military, billions of dollars in U.S. aid being spirited out of the country, or the Afghan children freezing to death in makeshift camps near Kabul. Even the gloss applied by President Obama has been muddied by a lieutenant colonel who tattled to Congress that the claimed progress in Afghanistan is nonsense.
For people who pay close attention to America's many military interventions, Afghanistan seems mostly opaque to understanding. We don't try very hard, of course -- we don't know how many Afghans have died as a consequence of the war, we don't know where the refugees go or what's happened to the promise of freedom. Basically, we want it to end. For us. And so we let it slip away from our thoughts.
Fortunately, there are a few journalists who want us to pay attention. One of them is Anna Badkhen, a 30-something Russian ex-pat who has been logging some of the most impressive dispatches from Afghanistan to be found. Unlike many of her fourth estate colleagues, Badhken doesn't do the counter-terror and corruption beat. She tells stories about ordinary Afghans and their heroic and at times transcendent struggle with yet another war, yet another winter (or summer or spring or fall) of privation and disease. And her luminous writing conveys a reality that we rarely glimpse. Try this passage:
This year, while NATO troops were trying to turn the quickening tide of insurgency, I squatted in beggared bazaar towns that cling to the severe scarps of the Hindu Kush and in mud villages raised by hand out of the thirsty desert. Month after dust-choked month, behind the glassless windows of huts slapped together from clay and straw, beneath rooftops extended heavenward like palms in prayer, my hosts and I listened to the rumble of U.S. helicopter gunships -- how terrifyingly low they would pass in the night! -- and watched the Taliban steadily claim dominion along the 34th parallel's violent tectonics.
She has mesmerized me in telling her stories of this ancient land, where we plant our flag and claim to know what's best for a people -- many peoples, really -- we scarcely know and expend little effort to understand better. Obama promised to prosecute the war more forcefully, and has. Somehow this is not enough for the dubious trio of Santorum, Gingrich, and Romney. Like Obama in 2008, they are desperate for a foreign policy venture on which they can flex their little muscles.
The people who know things about Afghans are more measured and far less confident of the decisive power of U.S. armed force. I listened to a former diplomat the other day who quietly told of negotiations with the Taliban. Yes, we're talking to the devils (but no women allowed). That lieutenant colonel, Daniel Davis, interviewed extensively throughout the country and came away gloomy. Think tank experts say pretty much the same things: Karzai is incompetent or corrupt or both, the U.S. aid is squandered, Pakistan is duplicitous, and the insurgency is surprisingly adept. No one (except the three stooges of the GOP) is calling for "victory."
But why is Afghanistan such a hard case for U.S. designs? There are no simple answers, to be sure, but reading Badkhen and kindred spirits like Sarah Chayes and Rory Stewart leads to a set of ideas. The one I take away is America's vast capacity for self-delusion.
One of those delusions is that the security mission trumps all else, and security is achieved through military power and alliances with the locally powerful. "Elections, supposedly marking the progress of democracy, only served to legitimize the power of men widely known to be criminals," wrote Sarah Chayes in the Boston Review five years ago. "'We'll worry about governance later,' I would hear from international officials. 'Now we have to focus on security.' But in my view it is precisely this decision to ignore good governance and cultivate criminality that has led to the disastrous security conditions in the Afghan south." Little of this has changed under Obama. Development -- our foreign assistance that is meant for roads and electricity and irrigation and food and medicine -- has totaled nearly $20 billion, yet so little has changed for the people there.
"Afghanistan is a deeply violated land, and people live with tremendous sorrow," Anna Badkhen told an interviewer earlier this month. The country "is closing up into a protective shell." The sense of danger for Afghans is palpable, she says. The gauges of "progress" in Afghanistan show no improvement since we invaded more than a decade ago. Infant mortality, literacy, access to drinking water -- the things that matter -- have stayed the same or worsened.
For the Afghans, it is familiar if no less disheartening. "Seasonal warfare here predates the Taliban, the anti-Soviet mujaheddin's spring offensives of the 1980s, the 19th-century blitzes against the British Raj by guerrillas wielding jezail matchlocks," Badkhen wrote a couple of months ago from a northern village she's visited often. "Year after year, the people somehow pick their way past pendular swings of immemorial, internecine violence. They hold their breath when the fighting escalates, exhale when it quiets down. Even now, 10 years after the U.S.-led invasion, they do so with little outside help... The way the people adjust to the idiosyncrasies of the latest iteration of violence can be regarded as resignation. But I think it's grace."